Sunday, July 24, 2011

Suffering and Joy

Recently I heard a Christian woman talking about how she was amazed that her friend, even though going through a very difficult time in her life, was praising God for everything, and very happy. “I don’t know how she does it,” the Christian woman replied. “When I am suffering, the last thing I feel is ‘joyful’, and I can’t go around smiling.”
I’m not sure where we got the idea that praising God and being happy, or joyful, were equal identities. I have often heard Christians express the idea that if we are not happy and joyful all the time, obviously we are not trusting God.  A close look at the various characters of the Bible make it plain that we can praise God and not be joyful.
After Job received all the various messages about his losses (Job 1:13-19), the Scripture says “Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground before God. He said “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be stripped of everything when I die. The Lord gave me everything I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!”
In this passage we see Job experiencing  the normal emotion of suffering—grief –which he expressed even physically by tearing his robe, shaving his head, and falling to the ground.  But he also verbally praised the Lord. This is a perfect example of praising God even while feeling negative emotions. 
In the Psalms, David often expressed verbally his negative emotions, and then praised God. Psalm 69 is a great example of this. David speaks for 32 verses expressing mostly negative emotions, and then in verse 34 says “Praise him, O heaven and earth, the seas and all that move in them.” 

Although joy is a fruit of the spirit, we may not have a complete understanding of what it means to experience joy and express joy. We know Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, but we don’t see any hint of what we would define as “joy” in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus knew it was ok to feel those negative emotions that were consistent with what He was experiencing. That is true integrity.
I don’t believe God expects us to be happy in the midst of our suffering. But I do believe He expects us to praise Him—to acknowledge who He is and to declare that to others.  Many Christians feel a sense of guilt because they are not able to feel “happy” or “joyful” during suffering.  We can relieve at least some of their suffering by helping them realize it is biblical to feel sadness, sorrow, and other negative emotions in the midst of suffering, and that it is possible to praise God without feeling “happy.”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Suffering and fear

The topic of suffering is one of the most difficult issues counselors deal with when working with clients. Not only do we not have the answers for their suffering (why, how long, is God really loving if He allows this), but we don't even have the answers for our own suffering.

One of the most powerful biblical characters who speaks about suffering is Job. Each year as I read through the Bible, I am always astounded when I read the book of Job. His whole experience is so extreme, his response and the expression of his emotions and thoughts are so raw and real, that the story always impacts me.

I have been thinking a lot about Job and the expression of his emotions. There is a rich variety of emotions across his story that gives us much to think about as we, as counselors, consider how to help people express and handle their own emotions in the midst of suffering.

One of the first things I noticed was Job's fear. He correctly "feared" God (Job 1:1), which seemed to have the impact of helping him stay away from evil. But he also seemed to be almost consumed with a fear for his children. (Job 1:5) "When these celebrations ended--and sometimes they lasted several days--Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, "Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts." This was Job's regular practice. (NLT).

One of the notes I wrote next to this passage several years ago was "Prayed regularly for his children." How great that was...I am a strong believer that we need to pray frequently and fervently for our children. But recently as I read that passage, I was struck with the fact that he was also fearful for his children.

Sometimes the suffering we experience is magnified by our fears. One client I worked with was so fearful about her children and mistakes they might make that she was unable to love them with a tenderness and accepting love because she was constantly correcting them and was rigid and harsh with them. As is often the case, her teens began responding with pulling away and some rebellion against her values, since they didn't feel connected to their mom, or valued by her.

As I think about my own experiences of suffering, I can see how fear often has impacted the intensity of my suffering. Recently our financial situation changed substantially, and I began struggling with fear about financial security. My fear caught me "off guard," since across the years God has taught us what a wonderful provider He is. As I've examined this fear more closely, I've come to realize that it is not really about not having the necessities of life, but more about giving up the "extras" we have had for a few years. I know the energy it takes to live on a tight budget, and I think perhaps my greatest fear is related to the dread of having to expend all that energy in keeping track of spending.

When I write that fear down, and think about it, it almost seems ridiculous. Of course, there are also the fears of not being able to go see my Dad (who lives some distance away) with the same frequency, as well as my children and grandchildren, or the sadness of not being able to invest financially in the lives of students and others as we have done in recent years.

Unspoken fears have a way of haunting us emotionally. They hang over our head and often feel like a dark cloud following us around where ever we go. When we go through a test or event involving suffering, I think we all benefit from identifying any fears that are related to the experience, and talking to God about them, even as Job talked to God about his fears for his children.

What are you fearing today? As you learn to identify your own fears, and learn to submit those fears to God, you will become a better counselor for those you work with as they struggle with their own fears.